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Coffin: An Old Voice in a New Setting

October 15, 1987|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

It was a hot night, ending one of several days in which the air refused to budge, and the meeting of the local chapter of SANE/Freeze was slow to come to order. The 20 or so wilted people gathered in the community room of an apartment building in Hollywood last week mixed themselves instant coffee, spread out notices of other meetings and events, and waited for the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. to arrive.

In he came, looking rumpled and slightly paunchy, shirt open at the throat and sleeves rolled up. He appeared undaunted by the heat, however, and, with a friendly grin in place, strode across the room relaxed and affable, clapping back at the people who stood to applaud him.

"It's neat," he told the group, "to get a chance to see what's going on." For many in that room, it was, in return, a chance to meet the legend, and their new national president.

Coffin became a household word during the '60s, when as chaplain at Yale he became a civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activist, joining freedom rides, marching in the South, collecting draft cards with Dr. Benjamin Spock, speaking out and getting arrested over and over again.

He was in the national news again during Christmas, 1979, when he was one of three clergymen permitted by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini to visit the American hostages in Tehran, an experience he describes as "Kafkaesque."

His Concerns, Causes

When he left his 18-year term at Yale University for New York City's Riverside Church in 1977, he took his concerns and causes with him, helping to transform the once predominantly wealthy and white congregation into an ethnically and economically diverse one concerned with working for peace and social-justice issues such as disarmament, homelessness, the sanctuary movement, AIDS and poverty.

Last July, saying the timing in history was right, Coffin announced that he would step down as senior minister of the Manhattan church at the end of this year to head SANE/Freeze, the new peace organization formed by the merger of two national organizations, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.

In creating the position of president, over that of the co-directors of the newly merged groups, the SANE/Freeze directors' board announced it was looking for someone to "articulate the vision."

If there is one thing Bill Coffin can do, it is articulate the vision. And shape it. It is not without reason that he calls his new job with the secular organization "a full-time peace and justice ministry."

Coffin, 63, does not discuss peace separately from social justice. While the peace movement in general is increasingly making that connection, the degree to which Coffin does may not please the conservatives, or purists, within the peace movement who are concerned that linking it with other issues will dissipate it.

"It will be interesting to see if they stay," Chris Brown, regional chair of SANE/Freeze, said privately of such members after last week's meeting.

Coffin is a patrician-born New Yorker whose childhood included the right schools and addresses in Manhattan's upper East Side, Carmel, and Paris. His family founded the W.&J. Sloane furniture business; his father was president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; his Uncle Henry was president of Union Theological Seminary.

Coffin himself took a circuitous route to Union, and later, Yale Divinity School, considering first a career as a concert pianist, and, later, diplomacy. He was an Army liaison officer to the French and Soviet armies during World War II, and during the Korean War was a CIA officer in West Germany, training anti-communist Russians for work within the Soviet Union.

Finally, he said only half-jokingly last week, he lost the battle to stay out of the ministry. World War II had raised too many of the right questions.

A friendly, witty man full of exuberant hellos for those he knows, he is far from a glad-hander or one overly familiar with strangers. He does not presume a first-name basis.

'But God Will Not Be Mocked'

What he sees in the '80s is a climate for change, but a climate that compares to the '20s: "Enemy No. 1 was Bolshevism. The Red scare was real big then. Coolidge sent the Marines to Nicaragua to protect that country from Bolshevism coming in from the north, Mexico. The free market was the great ally of progress. There was the Teapot Dome scandal in New York. Politicians were looting the place. There was flamboyant luxury living cheek by jowl with scandalous poverty.

"But God will not be mocked," Coffin said. "We're about to get our economic comeuppance, and people will once again be ready for a new deal."

He says it all out of the side of his mouth in a broad accent. Plain talk, maybe, but it is plain talk that often comes out of the side of his mouth in French, Russian, Spanish and Latin. He frequently quotes and paraphrases, always with attribution, Plato, Lord Acton, Ike, J.F.K., Reinhold Niebuhr, Jessie Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Karl Marx, Huey Long.

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